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Women and the Double Standard of Ageing 

The double standard about aging shows up most brutally in the conventions of 
sexual feehng, which presuppose a disparity between men and women that 
operates permanently to women's disadvantage.i 

— Susan Sontag 

I have always wanted to be old. Weird? Probably - and certainly neither cool 
nor fashionable; for that I would need to be a Grumpy Old Woman, whingeing 
because things aren't what they used to be, and confirming all the 
assumptions about old women as discontented, obsessed with trivia and 
generally off their trolleys. And I would need to engage in the 'fight against 
ageing' to make myself look twenty years younger. But I'm happy to look the 
age I am, happy to be the age I am. I want to enjoy it, strip-mine it for all it has 
to offer. I want to live and work with it, not fight it. 

But we live in a society in denial about ageing; a denial fuelled by an obsession 
with image and style, with youth and physical beauty, and the illusion that we 
can keep making ourselves over to hold old age at bay. And although we are 
not all obsessed with the desire to stay young, resistance is frequently 
interpreted as deviance or failure. But there is nothing shameful about ageing; 
it comes to us all if we are lucky enough to be here to greet it and to deny our 
age is to pretend to be less than we are in much more than just years. 

When I look in the mirror I can see my ageing in the lines, the sagging skin, 
the extra rolls of fat, the age spots. I can also feel it in my muscles and my 
joints, the effort of my breath at exercise, the loss of the ability to sit cross- 
legged, the faet that I have four pairs of glasses but frequently can't find any of 
them, and that I occasionally discover my misplaced wallet packed in the 
fridge with the shopping. I creak and puff, I droop and sag. I have given up 
shoes with heels and the effort to hold in my stomach, and I am working hard 
on not caring about how I appear to others (although the latter is still a work 
in progress). 

But I can also feel it in my head and in my heart; in my joy in life, my greater 
appreciation of the world and particularly of my family and friends, my 
increasing satisfaction in small things, in my waning tolerance of the 
superficial rhetoric of politicians and the dominant culture of personality and 
celebrity, which has replaced the culture of character. I see it in disturbing 
flashes of my own mortality: a glimpse of myself dying alone or the prospect of 
a long and painful decline, a sharper fear of and greater fascination about the 
possibilities of an afterlife. I question whether simple aches and pains, lumps 
and bumps, foreshadow something more serious, even fatal. 

I feel my age through my need to make the most of every moment and every 
day, love more and better, write more and better, learn more, read more. I 
value family and friends more and more thoughtfully, feel grief more sharply 
and outrage more passionately. And I relish my age in the pure wonder of 
having arrived here, two years from seventy, and to be living every day as a 
bonus and an adventure. 

In 1972 the late Susan Sontag suggested that ageing is largely a trial of the 
imagination. She believed that the anxiety and depression many women 
experience about ageing is caused by 'the way this society limits how women 
feel free to imagine themselves'. ii In that same year Simone de Beauvoir 
described ageing as 'a class struggle, which, like race and gender, becomes a 
filter through which to see and understand differential life changes.'iii Both 
Sontag and de Beauvoir wrote of the 'double-standard of ageing' - the 
poisonous nexus of sexism and ageism that disempowers women as they age. 
We are most desirable as lovers, partners and mothers in our youth, and as 
that youth fades so too does our sexual value. 'For most women,' Sontag 
wrote, 'ageing means a gradual process of sexual disqualification.'iy 

Even if, as ageing women, we don't give a damn about sexual disqualification 
at a personal level it still affects us in both overt and subtle ways. Despite the 
changes that emerged from the women's movement of the late sixties and 
seventies we still live in a world predominantly ordained by men, in which the 
male view of women dictates the visual and verbal wallpaper of our lives. And 
it's a particular type of male heterosexuality that defines the overbearing 
messages about women's value and where it lies. This is not an attack on men; 
not for one moment do I think that most men are aware of it or even give it a 
thought, and I know many who do find it as alienating as do many women. 
But sadly the old bog standard attitudes that defined women's value in terms 
of their appearance seems to be enjoying a resurgence in the twenty-first 
Century, and it infiltrates the lives of us older, disqualified, women as well as 
those of younger women and distressingly the lives of little girls. 

Is there ever a time in a woman's life when it is okay to be and to look the age 
she is? Tiny tots are being trained with beauty pageants, pole dancing and 
Playboy Bunny outfits to mimic the appearance and the sexual appeal of adult 
women. Girls in their teens strive to appear older until sometime in their 
twenties, when relentless anti-ageing messages infiltrate their consciousness 
and they begin to look fearfuUy over their shoulders. By the thirties middle age 
is a threat, the fifties and beyond unthinkable. Sexism defines youthful beauty 
and sexual availability as what matters for women. And so advertisements for 
fashion, lingerie and cosmetics targeting women are all designed with words 
and images that play to men's fantasies about women to encourage us to 
spend in ways that will satisfy those fantasies, until the time we become 

It is the end of fertility that marks us out as sexually unattractive and 
undesirable, and it brings with it the additional assumption that we are 
moody, depressed and emotionally unstable. But while some women do suffer 

severe physical and emotional difficulties at menopause, for most the effects 
are just mild and annoying, and some experience very few symptoms at all. 
Menopause is the culture's defining consciousness about older women and 
within it there are several narratives of the 'problem'. There is the medical- 
problem-medical-solutions story, which treats it as an illness and is 
accompanied with lists of enough grim physical and psychological symptoms 
as to make you slash your wrists. It is heavily weighted towards hormone 
replacement therapy and frequently has a critical edge that implies that while 
menopause is a clinical condition requiring medical intervention, the woman 
is selfish and pathetic for seeking help to manage her symptoms. There is the 
story, which counsels women not to bore and embarrass others with this life- 
changing experience - 'just grin and bear it, and keep taking the tablets'. And 
finally there is the I-did-it-my-way-with-the-help-of-the-goddess-and-a-few- 
archetypes; this version is dreamy and mystical and often involves herbs, 
visualisation and rituals with shells and candles. 

All these narratives create the context for menopause as a major design fault 
that leads inevitability to diminishment, alienation and invisibility. The 
impact of hormonal change is physiologically and emotionally real, but it is 
not necessarily debilitating or disabling; even so, biological determinism - 
used to declare women mad, sad or bad as adolescents and in pregnancy - has 
a special bite in old age where it also erases us from public view. How can 
mature women begin to imagine themselves pre, during and after menopause 
without images of vibrant, content, energetic older women with their own very 
special beauty. 

The imaginative freedom to enjoy ageing, to recognise its possibilities and rise 
to its challenges, depends to a considerable extent upon how we see it 
represented in the world around us. Writer and anthropologist Thomas De 
Zengotita suggests that seeing ourselves and our lives reflected in the products 
of popular culture is a pervasive and fundamental form of flattery: 'The 
flattered self is a mediated self,' he writes, 'and the alchemy of mediation is the 
osmotic process through which reality and representation fuse, and get 
carried to our psyches by the irresistible flattery that goes with being 
incessantly addressed.'y In other words when we can constantly see realistic 
representations of people like us in the media we feel we are being 
acknowledged, spoken to by the creators of those images, included as part of 
the audience and therefore part of the larger tribe. 

But ageing and old women are rarely the central characters in the products of 
popular culture. They appear in minor stereotypicai and frequently negative 
roles: nosey neighbours, interfering mothers-in-law, dippy old aunts, 
scheming bitches or frail old burdens who impede the lives and the desires of 
the really important characters - men, younger women and children. 
Television, at the heart of most Australian homes, is the place where we 
should reasonably expect to experience the benefits of representational 
flattery, but for older women it is a representational void. For ageing women 
invisibility is both a feeling and reality, and the silence of not being addressed 
is deafening. 

Realistic fictional representations are, I believe, even more powerful in terms 
of representational flattery than real-life examples of successful women. In the 
long history of efforts to raise the status of women the existence and visibOity 
of real-life female leaders as role models has always been inspirational, but 
famous, high-profile women can also seem remote from our own more 
ordinary lives. It is in fiction - in books and on the screen - that we can 
experience the inner lives of others, observe their challenges, learn how they 
deal with anger, grief and loss as well as success, joy, love and fulfilment. In 
fiction we are privy to the emotional rollercoaster of ordinary lives that reflect 
our own and in its multiple possibilities we see who we are and who we can 
become. It works to humanise and to bond us with those who are living with 
or have already passed through what we have yet to experience. 

It was the absence of interesting and realistic older women as the central 
characters in Australian women's fiction that led me, ten years ago, to start 
writing novels that feature these characters. I had been searching the shelves 
of libraries and bookshops for novels that featured women of fifty plus; I 
wanted to read about women like me. I was in my late fifties then, and 
surrounded by friends and coUeagues of a similar age and older who were 
living dynamic, useful and rewarding lives. They were, and still are, starting 
new businesses, enroUing at university, playing the stock market, surfing the 
waves and the internet, travelling, retraining and falling in and out of love. I 
regularly interviewed ageing women who held powerful positions in 
government and business, who excelled in the sciences, the arts and in sport, 
who had raised money to fund women's scholarships, overseas orphanages, or 
support services for women and children in crisis. They were doing all this in 
spite of, as well as, and way beyond menopause. It seemed to me that these 
women's stories were just as worth telling in fiction and drama as the stories 
of young women setting out in pursuit of careers and Mr Right offered by 
chick-lit and rom-coms. 

Quite a few people laughed when I spoke of writing novels about older 
women; quite a few more, parti cularly those in the media, sucked in their 
breath, shook their heads, and told me unequivocally that no one would want 
to read about older women. As women over forty-five buy more books than 
any other demographic this seemed a frankly stupid assumption and further 
illustrated the insidious effects of the double standard of ageing. Now, six 
best-selling novels later, I am delighted to have proved them wrong, but 
despite this demonstrated market, creators, producers, editors and publishers 
of popular culture still seem locked into the frantic pursuit of a youthful 

My argument is not with young people themselves, many of whom are 
concerned about and alienated by the sexualisation of marketing in so many 
areas, and by the pressure to conform to standards of physical beauty and 
sexual allure which they find unrealistic, undesirable and frequently offensive. 
Young women and men are profoundly affected by the absence of realistic, 
interesting and positive stories, images and messages about older people. 
When young people don't see realistic representations of the rich, diverse and 
satisfying lives of older people, they cannot see the future possibilities and 

choices open to them. In my conversations and correspondence with women 
of all ages and in a variety of contexts the invisibility of older women always 
rears its head. It's not surprising that many fear age and are drawn into the 
myth of some sort of battle against it when they cannot see the pleasures, 
rewards and opportunities that ageing can offer. 

If you aren't aware of the double standard of ageing and feel that as a woman 
you haven't experienced it I urge you to think again, and to look beyond 
yourself. Wake up to the bigger picture, study the patterns on the wallpaper 
and listen for the tone of the background music.